Essay: You Can’t Please Everybody

Essay: You Can’t Please Everybody

I care what people think of me, but I do not always care. A proverb might be attached: sings to the wind, sings to stillness. Something like that. A student put me in mind of this, asking me how I keep myself buoyant (my words) in a world of endless disappointments (my words) and I said that in my experience those who do not like you would never have liked you, and so what chance do you have? You simply make the music that is your life. I’m always making analogies, not only because that’s what writers do, but because for over a hundred years the thinking of our thinking classes has been infused with metaphor, whether you’re a poet or not. So religion is about ideas of god, science is about wish, far more than scientists will allow, and art is what you make of it. And that’s a fancy way of saying you can’t please everybody.

It is a sobering moment when you first realize that the educated in the US are afflicted by self-loathing and self-doubt to the same degree as your butcher. Talk subsumes surprise all too often, and a grey formalism mixed with gall settles in. You see it in university professors but also in bureaucrats and business people–a vague, unspoken sense that wisdom is not enough in a life. It’s as if the nervous self-awareness of adolescence has become permanent for millions of people; growth has stopped; and so the millions live in thrall to sad confirmations. You can ask why this should be the case and according to the province of theory you’re in, you will get different answers depending on whether you’re reading Osupensky or Marx or Alan Watts. What matters is that one is surrounded by idio-pathic zombies, which is of course why zombie games are so popular on mobile devices.

And so I don’t care what people think of me–I’m a person with an evident disability living in a civilization that sentimentalizes disabilities. The blind man who climbs a mountain can dine out forever giving talks about inspiration–talks that tell millions who live in thrall to sad confirmations that their lives could be bigger if only they dared live bigger. I have a general disdain for these sorts of talks, and in truth would rather have a colonoscopy without anesthetic than listen to the treacle that far too many celebrities with disabilities willingly toss at conferences and conventions. Inspirational speaking is always missing the point–that life is life, and lived with better ideas it’s a better business. Life is not cavalier emulation. It’s something else. It’s perhaps nothing more than a flaunted non-sophistication that finds honest satisfactions. And it’s about inviting your neighbors in, after you’ve swept the house. If you’re going to emulate someone, emulate the teacher who read a book all weekend.

Meantime, I don’t care if I’m not liked. Oh I grieve over it a bit. But what I want isn’t personal. I’m not indifferent to the peculiarities of the world, the one we’ve made. I’m angry that Lockheed Martin can advertise weapons of mass destruction on my television. I’m angry that young people are being told their votes don’t matter; that people of color in my country are being prevented from voting because they don’t have driver’s licenses; I’m wildly angry that my nation has killed a million citizens of Iraq for nothing more than a bullying neo-conservative idea that we could export democracy at gun point. I’m angry that the old damage of American imperialism is so poorly understood by my neighbors, many of whom honestly believe that muslims hate America because we’re Christian–failing to realize that our foreign policy has undermined the dignity of human life in a large part of the world for a generation and that human beings have a good grasp of what has been happening to them. I wake up angry. I go to bed angry. And in the meantime I walk about.

I live in the communion of words with my firm shoulder blades and half groomed head and I read as much as I can about liberty and I say what I must.

If you have a disability you see almost daily how many have learned the language of shoulder shrugging. If you work at a university you see professors who shrug–they’re my pet peeve–the ones who don’t want the students with disabilities in their classes. And the administrators who make it hard for faculty and staff with disabilities to do their jobs–I can’t stand their shrugging. The latter especially as it’s loaded with double talk.

So to that student who asked: I think of the static from the remorseless sun and keep shining.

 

The AWP and Disability Inclusion

Yesterday I posted on Facebook some rebarbative comments about disability access at the national conference of the AWP, which for those who don’t pay attention to the American university’s creative writing set, stands for Associated Writing Programs. There are hundreds of creative writing programs in the US which offer writers both undergraduate and grad degrees.

I believe wholeheartedly in the academic study of writing—from poetry to post-structuralism. In general I endorse the AWP in its effort to create a national gathering for writers and teachers. In fact, I think the AWP’s work is important. In recent years the organization has steered its national conference toward a greater appreciation of diversity and nowadays its panels and readings are richly representative of the multicultural nature of American society. In sum, the AWP is a largely progressive and affirming outfit. Except where disability is concerned. I must say that after a decade attending their conferences I’ve found the cumulative experience so demoralizing I’ve decided both to speak out about the matter and to skip the affair. The former is appropriate. The latter is sad.

If you’re still reading—here are a few highlights from my years of attending the conference:

  1. Hotel in Chicago tells me I can’t come in with my guide dog. Old game. Get the manager. Checking in takes 45 minutes. Dog is thirsty and hungry after plane trip.
  2. Ask for accessible handouts at panels. None. Shrugs from panelists. Eye rolling.
  3. Complain to national office about accessibility problems with conference website. Eye rolling.
  4. Fall down while entering a big room where a popular panel is about to take place. The panelists walk over me while I’m on the floor. One of them is very famous. He talks about empathy in his prepared remarks.
  5. Ask for escort to find things. Takes 1 hour to find accessibility services table. Miss the panel.
  6. No one is educated about helping disabled people. Lots of “I’ll see what I can do…”
  7. Wheelchair users have lousy time with everything from transportation to access.
  8. Deaf people have to fight to get sign language.
  9. Lots of eye rolling. Here is the AWP’s “statement” on disability from their website:

AWP is committed to making all reasonable arrangements that will allow conference attendees to participate in conference events.

All rooms at the conference are wheelchair accessible. The first row of seating in meeting rooms is reserved for individuals who have accessibility needs. In order to help us better prepare, all requests for accessibility services, equipment, or accommodations should be submitted in advance of the conference. Please submit your request to events@awpwriter.org by Friday, January 29, 2016. Attendees who require special onsite assistance during the conference should request it from personnel at AWP’s Help Desk.

The language is not welcoming, and its of some interest that the disability statment is hidden nearly out of sight on their web page, and appears under “refunds”.

Let me contrast this with the accommodations language employed by the Modern Language Association, which offers another big academic annual conference:

The MLA is committed to making arrangements that allow all members of the association to participate in the convention. Stacey Courtney coordinates arrangements for persons with disabilities; she can be reached at the MLA convention office at scourtney@mla.org.

Meeting Rooms. Meeting rooms at the convention are accessible by elevator, and the doors are wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs. There will be a desk in the MLA registration and welcome center at the Vancouver Convention Centre (Prefunction, level 1, West Building) staffed with personnel who can provide assistance to convention attendees with disabilities. There will also be a desk at the Fairmont Waterfront (Lobby level).

Hotel Rooms. To reserve hotel rooms that are specifically equipped for persons with permanent or temporary disabilities, participants must have checked the appropriate boxes on the convention registration and housing reservation forms or contacted Stacey Courtney in the MLA convention office by 14 November.

Transportation. A complimentary transportation service will be available throughout convention meeting hours to transport attendees with disabilities. Arrangements may be made at the desks for persons with disabilities in the Vancouver Convention Centre (Prefunction, level 1, West Building) and the Fairmont Waterfront (Lobby level). Further details will be available closer to the convention.

Sessions. Speakers are asked to bring five copies of their papers, even in draft form, for the use of members who wish to follow the written text. Speakers who use handouts should prepare some copies in a large-print format (14- to 16-point type size). Speakers should indicate whether they want their papers and handouts returned. Sign language interpreters and real-time captioning are available on request. The deadline to arrange for an interpreter is 14 November, though the convention office will make every effort to accommodate late requests. To arrange for either of these services, write or call Stacey Courtney in the MLA convention office.

Scooter Rentals. Scooters, for navigating the convention more easily, can be rented from Scootaround (888 441-7575 or www.scootaround.com/rentals/m/mla).

**

If disability rights are meaningful and to be honored, I think the AWP needs to organize a committee on disability access best practices. The ironies abound.

I know disabled folks who continue to goto the conference. They believe earnestly that by showing up they will change the dynamics. I no longer believe this.

The AWP should be a leader in all areas of civil rights.

Black Lives Matter: A Nature Poem

The peepers are peeping in my garden, my overgrown garden, and it’s still early, at least until 8 AM. I heard a commuter jet just moments ago. I can detect traffic far off on the interstate. There are gold finches in my yard debating with the crickets. BLACK LIVES MATTER. There’s a mourning dove somewhere among my apple trees. He is sometimes called the Carolina Pigeon. The British call him the Turtle Dove. BLACK LIVES. I think it’s good to be specific. The dove’s wings make a whistling sound when they take off and land. This is called “sonation” and as a blind person I enjoy this. BLACK LIVES MATTER. Long ago, when I was a child, I used to run away from home. Blind kid running. I was often alone among the trees. That was when I learned how to listen. BLACK LIVES MATTER. One thing I like about nature and nature writing is the fulsomeness of it: mourning doves feed their chicks on “crop milk” which is essentially the regurgitation of seeds. I knew an ornithologist once who tasted this. BLACK LIVES MATTER.

I love the morning.

My Father’s Hammer

Now and then I channel my father who hated all things mechanical. He was incompetent with tools and just the idea of hanging a picture could make him sweat. He was the sort of man who panics before touching a hammer.

Back in the day I imagined my father was merely clumsy with amateur carpentry. He was, after all, a scholar, a Harvard trained political scientist. What use did he have for hammers? But this was naive on my part. Everyone needs a hammer at some point. Why did the hammer fill him with dread?

I think I know the answer. The hammer, more than any other instrument, reveals a man’s life is spiced with heavy lies.

This didn’t come to me without help. Late last night I read the following lines in a poem by the late Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai entitled “Travels of the Last Benjamin of Tudela”:

The time has come to engage in technological 

games, machines and their accessories, 

toys that are kinetic, automatic, 

spring-operated, doing it themselves, in their sleep, 

wheels that make things revolve, switches that turn on, 

everything that moves and jumps and emits 

pleasant sounds, slaves and concubines, 

a he-appliance and a she-appliance, 

eunuchs and the eunuchs of eunuchs.

My life is spiced with heavy

lies, and the longer I live, the bigger 

the art of forgery keeps growing inside me

and the more real. 

**

My father stayed inside his books. Those bulwarks against the forged life.

Hammers told him what a liar he was.

The subconscious is filled with angry hammers.

A hammer knows you’re bound to slip out of your life and disappear without anyone noticing.

 

 

Thinking of Kenneth Koch

 

1.

I used to be blind but now I am deliriously dark.

Uptown subway Manhattan big dog.

She owns our money. Yellow canine loot.

Lucky, she spends it on me.

2.

A blind month—

a pomegranate split–

thirty days of seeds.

A mistake to say more.

3.

Bach lived in a violin case.

The man Bach lived inside the strings.

G string black and fizzy

His preferred we think.

The ADA Parties are a Bit Hard to Take

I wish I felt sanguine and celebratory about the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. A party has been going on across the nation from the White House to community centers. I feel like John Lennon singing: “I don’t want to spoil the party so I’ll go/I’d hate my disappointment to show…”

Daily oppression rocks the disability community and for my money the celebrations have seemed glib. People with developmental disabilities and autism are shot and tasered and die in police custody. Universities sequester disability services, treating accommodations for students as a rehabilitation process rather than a matter of diversity inclusion. Most colleges and universities still treat the ADA with grudging, conditional acceptance, which means among other things, they look for ways to ignore it whenever possible. In turn, college students who are not disabled learn nothing about disability. They become the next generation of managers who believe its a rehabilitation issue rather than an inclusion issue.

So I’m not dancing. In my city (Syracuse) there is almost zero accessible housing for wheelchair users. Tomorrow a group of students and local activists will assemble at city hall to raise this issue. 25 years after the ADA. Imagine.

While people ate classy finger foods at the White House this week, there’s a powerful move afoot in Congress to drastically reduce funding for Social Security disability benefits for our nation’s most vulnerable citizens. Jeb Bush, a leading contender for the Republican nomination for President has argued it’s time to eliminate Medicare. Schedule B of Medicate keeps people with disabilities alive.

Not dancing. I feel as if the celebrations are taking place while Rome is burning.

What a sour puss!

As of today, only 25% of college students with disabilities actually graduate.

As of today, 70% of the disabled remain unemployed.

As of today, airlines destroy wheelchairs in transit at alarming rates.

As of today, public transportation remains marginally accessible in most cities.

As of today, I could go on and on…

Sour puss indeed.

“But Kuusisto,” you say, “haven’t we made significant progress since 1990? Can’t you see that?”

I’m not sure.  Most businesses and universities think of the ADA as “an unfunded mandate” and treat it with disrespect.

I’ll bet the hors d’oeuvres were splendid at the White House.

They Are Murdering My Black Neighbors, My Disabled Tribesmen

Now that murdering black citizens in the United States is legion, and owing to the incontestable fact that the murderers are police, I hereby declare my civil disobedience. Cue: roll the B footage of Thoreau:

“If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go: perchance it will wear smooth–certainly the machine will wear out… but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.”

Yes. It’s time to become counter-friction. Of course it was always time. And I’ve been inconvenient before—having protested the Viet Nam war; the war on Nicaragua; successive wars in the mid-east. Sure. I’ve been a peacenik.

But counter-friction means inconveniencing the machine. I have failed to inconvenience it. I see this now.

I’m blind. I walk with a guide dog. I’m 60 years old. What can I do?

I’m grieving for all my black friends.

I grieve for the disabled people who have been routinely brutalized by cops.